The Incredibles was groundbreaking in the way it explored the family dynamics of superheroes. The characters were heroes by trade, but at home they had the same kinds of problems that all families have: financial woes, stressful day jobs, mischievous children, and so on. The new Disney comedy Sky High comes from a similar place; it imagines what it might be like to be an adolescent superhero dealing with all the trials and tribulations of high school.
Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston play Steve and Josie Stronghold. By day, they are real estate agents, but they also maintain secret identities as the Commander and Jetstream. The way they fight crime is amusing: she flies him in, he uses his super-strength to beat up giant robots or whoever the enemy du jour is. Clad in their rubbery red-white-and-blue costumes, the Commander and Jetstream look like the slightly less subtle siblings of Captain America.
Steve and Josie have a son named Will (Michael Angarano) who, they automatically assume, has superpowers of his own. Will hasn’t mustered the courage to tell them that his powers haven’t developed yet. Nevertheless, he is shipped off to Sky High, a special high school for superheroes that floats way up in the sky, thanks to a special antigravity device. The only way to get there is via a flying bus, driven by the lovably goofy Ron Wilson (Kevin Heffernan, of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe).
At the school, bossy gym teacher Boomer (hilariously played by Bruce Campbell) divides the freshmen up into groups – heroes or sidekicks. (The preferred, politically correct term for sidekick is “hero support.”) The nerdy little kid who morphs into a giant rock creature is proclaimed hero material, while the kid who melts into a puddle is deemed a sidekick. With no powers to speak of, Will is relegated to sidekick. He becomes close friends with other sidekicks but can’t quite bring himself to tell his parents that he’s not the superhero they want him to be.
That changes during a fight with the school bully. Suddenly, Will’s super strength kicks in. This necessitates a change in curriculum, with Will being pulled out of “hero support classes” and put into regular “hero classes.” This change gives him a crack at the school beauty queen, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but also alienates his sidekick friends, including Layla (Danielle Panabaker), the long-time best friend who is secretly in love with him. (Yeah, it’s a cliché, but the movie intentionally sends-up most of the cliches of the teen drama.) Everything Will learns in school must be put into practice later on, when the nefarious villain Major Pain hatches a plan to destroy Sky High and take out his longtime enemies, the Commander and Jetstream. It’s up to Will and his friends to save the day.
Sky High has a very clever premise, and most of the laughs come from the way the screenplay develops it. For example, the students get lessons on such essential superhero skills as building freeze ray guns and quick-changing into their costumes. In gym class, they play a game called “Save the Citizen” in which a dummy is slowly lowered over a rotating set of metal teeth; they have three minutes to fight off opponents and prevent the dummy from becoming tooth picks.
I liked the different types of superpowers shown too. One girl is able to clone herself, which allows her to execute complex cheerleading moves with her copies. That’s funny and so are the film’s cameos. It’s a great inside joke casting Lynda Carter as the principal, and there are funny turns from “Kids in the Hall” stars Dave Foley (as the Commander’s former sidekick-turned-teacher) and Mark McDonald, who plays the large cranium-ed teacher of Mad Science class.
Sky High has an intentionally low-tech visual style that is kind of charming in its simplicity. That style puts the movie in the realm of the superhero genre but also keeps the focus on the premise and the characters. The smart thing about this movie is that it grounds its extraordinary characters in ordinary life. Many teenagers will relate to the pressure Will feels to meet the expectations of his parents. It’s not easy being an adolescent anyway; imagine if your parents expected you to save the world.
Of course, as far as superhero spoofs go, The Incredibles is leagues beyond all others. But I give credit to Sky High for having wit and imagination. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, yet the film is light and fun, and there’s a positive message for kids. When Major Pain must be stopped from destroying Sky High, all the kids get the chance to contribute by using their special powers, including the girl who can “only” shape-shift into a guinea pig. As Napoleon Dynamite once said: “You’ve gotta have skills.”
( out of four)
Sky High is rated PG for action violence and some mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
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